Deena C. Bouknight

Contributing Writer

A renaissance woman (or man) is defined as a person with many talents or areas of knowledge. At 74, Diane McPhail’s resume is extensive. Included first and foremost is “artist,” but she is also currently or has been at some point an author, poet, teacher, therapist, and retreat leader. 

McPhail spoke Monday, Aug.13, at Uptown Gallery on Main Street in Franklin to members about her own artistic history and focus as a painter and generally about art history and “how great painters have tended to focus on one subject or idea, painting that one thing over and over, exploring it in multiple ways.”  To illustrate her points and the talk’s theme, she brought at least a half dozen of her own paintings. 

McPhail plans to return to Uptown Gallery Sept. 26-27 to teach a “Landscape Takes Many Forms” workshop. 

“My talk at the gallery was such a pleasure for me. The group was attentive with engaging questions. I’m looking forward to the workshop,” she says.

McPhail’s home and studio is in an old transformed grist mill that she and Ray, her husband of 52 years, own. The unique Highlands area dwelling is situated by a waterfall from the Cullasaja River, where Lake Sequoia begins. 

When touted as a renaissance woman, McPhail shrugs off the label. “I think my most satisfaction is in whichever direction I happen to be going (sometimes every direction at once), and in seeing ‘the light come on’ for others — whether that be in painting, therapy, or spiritual understanding.”

She has achieved two master’s degrees, an M.F.A. in studio art and an M.A. in clinical art therapy. She also holds a Doctor of Ministry degree with a concentration on creativity and spirituality. 

Of all her endeavors, art is her go-to. She says, “I am at heart a painter. I love all kinds of paint, but work extensively with acrylic, but also with oils. However, because of near fatal blood clots in my lungs some years ago, I have to be careful about toxic fumes.” 

Still, she paints. 

“I discovered my creative hunger when I was 24 and teaching French at Decatur High in Atlanta. My best friend was the art teacher. She set me up with easel and materials and I was there before school, lunch period, free period, and after school until they had to lock the building. And that driving energy has never stopped.”

McPhail’s work is represented by the Carolina Gallery of Fine Art and The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts, both in Highlands. Her work varies from landscapes and still life to abstract and faces and figures. Her art includes sculptures as well as paintings that center on a harlequin theme. 

Less of a health issue is her pursuit of prose. 

“I never thought, ‘When I grow up, I’ll write a novel!’ I have always loved to write, but for my personal journal or poetry. I became intrigued by an historical story that had haunted me all my growing up. Stories tend to get simplified into black/white, right/wrong and as a therapist I knew this story of horrendous civil violence had to have far more nuanced causes and motivations than the story handed down would indicate. I was also intrigued with how those who survived managed to go forward with life, bearing their trauma. In my writing group, I began to explore the possibilities and now, 12 years later, my novel “The Abolitionists Daughter,” will be released in hardback and audio from Kensington Publishers next spring.”

McPhail offers a synopsis of the story.

“Civilian violence between two families soon after the beginning of the Civil War. In a sense, it represents a microcosm of the larger war raging around this story. It involves a Mississippi abolitionist judge who, because it was illegal to free slaves, acquired them to give them a better life — illegally educating and preparing them for freedom. When he is murdered in a land dispute, violence and mayhem result in multiple horrendous deaths. In the aftermath, three women must find a way to go forward with life. The novel explores their trauma, their resilience, and their strengths.”

She has had to approach the discipline of writing a little differently than that of art.

 “While I was hardest at work on the novel, my work time tended to be from 5 a.m. to about 9 a.m., before other aspects of life came into play. My painting tends to be in the afternoons in my studio where I could spend hours working on one or many pieces, always exploring.”

McPhail’s work as a therapist has been with Northside Hospital in Atlanta, Ga., in its outpatient mental health program, where she designed and directed the outpatient art therapy program for around 10 years. She had a private practice in Macon County for many years; although she closed it, she continues to be involved on the board of the Highlands Cashiers Psychotherapy and Counseling Center.

Community outreach and teaching is at the heart of McPhail’s activities. Besides her upcoming workshop in Franklin, she is highly involved at The Bascom. The facility is part exhibit space, part permanent collection, and part workshop venue – plus there are various community events. “I recently hosted a studio benefit dinner to benefit The Bascom, with live music and live painting, audience participation encouraged, with a participatory painting auctioned at the end of the evening. Anyone could take a brush; we all worked in response to the music and made a joyful painting.” She adds, “I have been affiliated with The Bascom for over 20 years. I have had exhibitions there, taught and taken classes, given presentations, and been on the advisory board. My husband and I contributed the kiln barn for the ceramics program.”

All in all, McPhail says her interests are about exploring new avenues and finding creative expression. “Every minute of every day is creative for all of us. It is just hard for most of us to recognize it — how we dress, what we put together in the kitchen, how we plant in our garden, how we engage with family and friends. Every action requires some creative energy and choice from us.”

For more information about September’s Uptown Gallery workshop, including times and cost, visit www.franklinuptowngallery.com or call (828)349-4607.

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